Five Objects That Changed Our Lives

    Every computer in the world today owes a debt to a tiny but vital discovery by a U of A grad. Discover five groundbreaking objects that you might be surprised have a U of A connection and hear from experts about their national, global and sometimes very personal impact.

    By Habib Rahman, David Bundle, Adele Fifield, Rudy Wiebe, Ken Cadien on December 8, 2017

    Quantum Canola

    Canola

    Photo by John Ulan

     

    Creator: Gary Stringam, professor emeritus
    Date: 1995
    Impact: Rescued Canada’s fledgling canola industry, now worth more than $20 billion to the economy

    By Habib Rahman

    I was a plant breeder in Europe in the 1990s, with a small part of my breeding activities in Canada. At the time, canola was a burgeoning industry in Canada, worth millions of dollars to farmers, and blackleg disease posed a very serious threat. The fungus attacked the plant, rotting the stem at ground level, cutting off nutrients to the rest of the plant and resulting in as much as 30 per cent crop yield losses. Researchers were racing to find a solution. Then Gary Stringam discovered a blackleg-resistance gene in an Australian canola and used biotechnology to create the blackleg-resistant cultivar Quantum. The new cultivar also produced very high yields. Bingo! It was like winning the lottery for farmers and the canola industry. Canola today contributes more than $20 billion to Canada’s economy, and the blackleg-resistance gene is still found in many canola cultivars.

    Habib Rahman is a crop scientist in the U of A Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science.


    Sucrose

    Sucrose

    Sucrose photo by Image Solutions LLC / Alamy

     

    Creator: Ray Lemieux, ’43 BSc, ’91 DSc (Honorary)
    Date: 1953
    Impact: Laid the foundation for vaccines, antibiotics and other modern medical technologies

    By David Bundle

    Many of today’s fundamental medical interventions — refined blood typing, antibiotics and vaccines — can be traced back to the chemical synthesis of sucrose. Chemist Ray Lemieux was the first to build the three-dimensional sucrose molecule in the lab, giving scientists control over sugars in the human body. The discovery gave us the ability to link sucrose to other sugars and then attach them to different molecular compounds like proteins. In essence, lab-made sugar laid the groundwork for antibiotics, vaccines, early anti-rejection techniques for organ transplant and even early treatments for hemophilia.

    The synthesis of sucrose was a breakthrough at the time; it was really a harbinger. Aside from his groundbreaking work on sugar, Lemieux taught many fellow chemists, including me, and launched three spinoff companies instrumental in Alberta’s burgeoning biotechnology industry. His legacy extends far beyond his own work to the research of today’s leaders in glycomics, metabolomics and immunochemistry.

    U of A chemist David Bundle is the R.U. Lemieux Professor of Carbohydrate Chemistry and associate chair of research in the Faculty of Science.


    C-Leg Prosthetic

    C-leg Prosthetic

    Photo by John Ulan

     

    Creator: Kelly James, ’81 BSc(MechEng)
    Date: 1991
    Impact: Allows more than 70,000 amputees around the world to walk with a safer and more natural gait

    By Adele Fifield

    I was 13 in 1979 when I lost my leg to cancer, and my first prosthesis had a pretty basic hinge-type knee. I remember trying to walk on it out to the end of our roadway, to hang out with friends. It had rained and, honest to goodness, I fell three times. I had to go change my clothes. When you’re young, you adapt, but every piece of technology that makes things easier is just so critical. When I got the C-Leg in 1997, it changed my life. There is a nuance to walking that I didn’t even realize I was missing. For example, with an ordinary artificial leg, you have just one speed, but with the C-Leg I can pick up my pace in a crosswalk, or slow down in a crowd. I’m not one of the prettiest dancers, but the C-Leg gives me control and lets me participate without worrying whether the leg will be there when I move. I went up Machu Picchu, with all those stairs, and I’ve been on the Great Wall of China. The point of the C-Leg isn’t to jump over buildings. But if there is ever an emergency, it will sure help me get out of one safely.

    Adele Fifield of Ottawa is one of the first users of the C-Leg.

    “It was years before I thought: ‘Oh. This is my life … forever.’ ”
    –Adele Fifield


    Who Has Seen the Wind

    Who Has Seen the Wind

    Items (left) courtesy of University of Calgary Special Collections, MsC 19.40.13, MsC 19.41.4 and PS8525 .I81 W42 1947 c.1

     

    Creator: W.O. Mitchell, ’43 BA, ’75 DLitt (Honorary)
    Date: 1947
    Impact: Helped create a literary geography of the West and became a Canadian classic

    By Rudy Wiebe

    Who Has Seen the Wind: first edition, Macmillan, Toronto, 1947 — the story of “a boy and the wind.” Amazingly, it takes place in Saskatchewan. The boy is a prairie kid like me. Now a Canadian classic, read by millions! And I have my own first-edition copy, but without the dustjacket; the faded-red spine creaks when I open its heavy pages to read:

    “At the edge of the town, they turned and stood, looking out over the prairie, to its far line where sheet lightning, elusive as a butterfly, winked up the world’s dark rim.”

    My title page is signed, the swift “WOMitchell” Bill had so much practice perfecting. In fact, I also have it in five other of his first-edition books. He signed them one of the evenings he had supper with my wife, Tena, and me during the years he taught fiction at the U of A while I worked on The Temptations of Big Bear. We remember so well his evocative gravelly voice, unforgettable as a prairie meadowlark song, telling stories … it could make you laugh or cry — as he saw fit — simply by pronouncing the label on a pair of overalls.

    Author Rudy Wiebe, OC, ’56 BA, ’60 MA, ’09 DLitt (Honorary), has earned the Governor General’s Award for Fiction twice, for The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (1994).

    This printer’s typescript with editorial corrections and a first edition of Who Has Seen the Wind are part of the W.O. Mitchell archive at the University of Calgary.


    Magnetic Thin Film Head

    Magnetic Thin Film Head

    Photo by John Ulan

     

    Creator: Lubomyr Romankiw, ’55 BSc(ChemEng)
    Date: 1970
    Impact: Revolutionized the way data is stored, opening the door to personal computers and miniaturized computer memory

    By Ken Cadien

    This revolutionary discovery multiplied the data that could be stored on a hard drive [like the one above] by 10 million times. The thin film head was invented at IBM in 1970 and patented in 1975. The first personal computer was released in 1981. That’s not a coincidence.

    At the time, universities and companies around the world had been searching for a way to improve computer memory and magnetic data storage. Out of the blue, Romankiw comes up with this method of electroplating, creating a tiny device that can read and write data on hard-drive discs, and it took us all by surprise. It enabled the dramatic miniaturization and proliferation of hard drives and data storage. That technology continues to endure. Today, every computer in the world has heads that read and write data, and hard drives can store up to a trillion gigabytes per square inch. But the impact is even wider than that. The complex electroplating method Romankiw developed also helped revolutionize silicon microchips, enabling higher-performance devices and allowing us to store even more data in an even smaller space. These chips are ubiquitous today, in everything from cellphones to driverless cars.

    Ken Cadien is chair of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering.